Bird Strikes: How dangerous can birds really be to a flight?
#Miracle on the Hudson
How dangerous can 'bird strikes' really be to aircraft and their passengers and crew? Gavin Haines investigates.
'Sully', a biopic starring Tom Hanks, tells the story of Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and is scheduled for an early December cinema release.
Sullenberger was a pilot who saved the lives of 155 passengers in 2009, by safely guiding US Airways Flight 1549 onto the Hudson River after its engines failed.
What caused the Miracle on the Hudson? A bird strike.
Sully's Airbus A320 hit a flock of Canada geese during its climb after taking off from New York's LaGuardia Airport, killing both engines.
According to the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA), passengers should not usually need to worry about such an event: collisions between planes and birds are rarely dangerous – unless you’re a bird.
“Aircraft are designed and built to withstand bird strikes and pilots undergo rigorous training to enable them to deal with eventualities like a bird strike,” said BALPA flight safety specialist, Stephen Landells.
“In my flying career I have experienced ten bird strikes, none of which caused any significant damage. Indeed on half the occasions, due to the small size of the birds, I was not aware that I had hit one until inspecting the aircraft after landing.”
When a bird flies, or is sucked into the engine of a plane, the poor critter usually disintegrates. However, in incidents with larger birds there can be extensive damage to the engine.
“Losing one engine is not going to cause an aircraft to crash because they are designed to fly with one engine down,” said Landells. “However, multiple bird strikes – or hitting large birds such as Canada geese – can and have caused serious accidents.”
After the travails of US Airways Flight 1549, airports in New York resorted to culling hundreds of geese to prevent a repeat of the incident.
The approach provoked outrage in 2013, when wildlife biologists at JFK shot two snowy owls amid concerns that the birds would fly into aircraft.
JFK was subsequently sued by an animal advocacy organisation, but the court ruled in the airport’s favour earlier this year.
Though culling may sometimes be necessary, there are more humane ways to reduce bird strikes. Scaring measures, such as playing distress calls, firing flares, and even the controlled use of birds of prey have been successfully employed at various airports, says the BALPA.
“On the aircraft itself there are ways of making the aeroplane bird visible,” said Landells. “Making sure the lights are on and flying at a speed that gives birds a chance to move out of the way and reduce bird damage if a collision occurs can help.”
Ultimately, though, prevention is better than a cure: in other words, keep birds and aircraft apart where possible.
Bird Strikes: At a glance
At what altitude are aircraft safe from birds?
The vast majority of bird strike incidents take place during take-off and landing phases - so fairly near the ground, although birds have been occasionally hit at higher altitudes.
What happens when a bird flies into a plane engine?
The energy within the engine generally disintegrates the bird. There can, in a serious incident, be extensive damage to the engine. After a bird strike, or possible bird strike, the engine will be checked for evidence of bird debris, and if debris is found a series of further checks will be carried out.
Can it be dangerous?
A single bird is rarely dangerous, but multiple bird strikes – or hitting large birds such as Canada Geese – can and has caused serious accidents.
Are certain aircraft more likely to get hit than others?
Any aircraft that flies low and fast is at risk of a bird strike.
How often do bird strikes cause accidents?
Not very often. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), between 1990 and 2013, there were 25 human fatalities attributed to wildlife strikes with US civil aircraft. In the same period there were 279 recorded injuries.
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